The city of Fort Myers and surrounding Lee County suffered severe damage when Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida nearly two months ago. Category 4 winds, storm surge and heavy rain combined to cause damage and flooding along the coast and inland.
Tens of thousands of displaced residents are still living in shelters, FEMA-sponsored motels, temporary rentals, RVs and RVs, or crashing with friends and family. And in an area already suffering from an affordable housing crisis, the storm made things worse.
About a month ago, as the cleanup from Hurricane Ian was already underway, devastation was seen along most residential streets from strong sustained winds and flooding of many rivers, streams and canals.
“So you see how close we are to the river, that’s the Caloosahatchee River,” Abdul’Haq Muhammed said during a drive through the area. Muhammed is the founder and executive director of the Quality Life Center of Southwest Florida, a local community organization serving predominantly African-American and Latino working-class neighborhoods east of downtown.
On one side of the street in East Fort Myers, near the waterfront, modest wood-frame single-family homes and mobile homes could be seen. On the other side were more modern luxury houses and apartments, some with waterfront views.
“So the houses are bought by corporations — corporations out of town, often,” Muhammed said, “and they’re renovated and then put back on the market at a level that’s unaffordable for people in this community.”
There was obvious wind damage to both types of houses. But Muhammed said he was most concerned about renters and owners of older homes and mobile homes, as many are underinsured and may not be able to rebuild or stay.
“If you look down on these blocks, you’ll see debris, household furniture – in some areas it’s about as high as houses,” he said.
“You can see a house that looks good on the outside,” said Gladys Cook, director of resiliency and recovery at the Florida Housing Coalition. “But there’s a pile of debris in the front yard where all their drywall is, carpets, all their closets, beds.” So you know that house leaked or flooded and those people can’t live in the house. And there are thousands of people in that situation.”
Hurricane Ian made landfall along the coast in Lee County west of Fort Myers, and the county suffered the most damage in the state. More than 5,000 homes were assessed by their owners as destroyed after the hurricane; nearly 30,000 others suffered severe damage. More than 14,000 households in the county are currently eligible for Temporary Relief Protection, according to FEMA.
That means displaced storm victims face a major challenge: trying to find a new place to live while living short-term in a FEMA-sponsored shelter or motel; temporary lease; motor home or RV; or staying with friends or family.
“We were already a million units short of affordable housing in Florida before the disaster,” Cook said. “And then when you take out all those mobile homes — you’re really looking at a long-term problem.”
Subsidized housing isn’t even a realistic option for most, Cook said. “Assisted housing complexes are 100% occupied, so there are no apartments to move into.”
Mellone Long had to leave the duplex she was renting after the storm flooded it.
A few weeks ago, she attended a FEMA informational meeting to learn about assistance programs. It was held at a local high school and organized by local churches and community groups, including the Center for Quality of Life.
“It’s really hard to lose 90% of everything you’ve ever owned,” Long said. “I mean, it’s just gone. And then you think you can go to work to have peace of mind. But you can’t because you lost 90% of your stuff at work.”
Long is grateful to have a job. He works for the Fort Myers Community Development Agency. After evacuating during Hurricane Ian, Long and her two dogs moved in with a friend while they looked for a new place to rent.
“So I looked everywhere in Fort Myers. There was nothing available,” she said. “So I was looking for a place outside the city and the waiting lists are long and there’s like a thousand people who want to rent there.”
“Okay, you have the problem of the hurricane, but before the hurricane, this momentum was already in motion,” Abdul’Haq Muhammed said. He pointed out that property values have risen in desirable coastal areas like Fort Myers as developers and wealthy homebuyers flock there.
But the area also needs service workers and civil servants such as teachers and social workers, he said. And they need affordable housing nearby. Instead, he said, “People’s rents keep going up. It’s going to push people out – further inland, which is now pushing them further away from job opportunities.”
Mellone Long has found a new lease. But she’s not in Fort Myers, and her commute will be longer. “So I’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s more than I paid, and you just—you’ve got to keep a roof over your head, right?”
Nearly two months after Hurricane Ian, FEMA is preparing to install the first temporary trailers for displaced Florida homeowners. And the state just announced a program to provide travel trailers and RVs to homeowners and renters who still need more stable shelter.
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